Coffee cup breakthrough boosts battle against plastics

Compostable drinks waste can now be processed at treble the number of sites in a ‘game-changer’ for packaging. By David Burrows.

UK sites that collect garden waste have been permitted to process some compostable packaging materials, including coffee cups and lids. Vegware, which manufactures compostable foodservice packaging and has led the initiative, called the move a “game-changer”, given that it “dramatically increases the number of facilities allowed to process compostable drinks waste”.

Indeed, 53 in-vessel composting (IVC) facilities are licensed to process food waste, but this will mean the packaging can also be accepted at 100 open windrow composting facilities. “We expect that soon, UK householders and businesses in many regions will be able to put our compostable cups and lids in their garden waste bins,” said the Vegware group recycling consultant, Eilidh Brunton.

Before that there will need to be some trials – and Vegware was keen to point out that consumers and companies can’t start chucking their compostable cups into garden waste bins just yet. “We need to make sure that facilities are happy to accept them,” the company’s communications director, Lucy Frankel, told Footprint.

That’s a moot point. Back in February, at the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) annual environment seminar, there was a fair bit of chatter about waste sites not accepting compostable packaging – even when it is independently certified to the right standards. Charlie Trousdell, the chairman of the Organics Recycling Group (ORG), which represents the biowaste industry, was moved to follow up the confusion with a blogpost in which he made a plea to the group’s members.

“The FPA thought there was only one site in the UK that would take compostable packaging so when I said there were 50 sites they became very interested. In the Q&A session a couple of speakers said they had tried to get composters interested and been told ‘no couldn’t take it’. So a plea to members who have IVC or similar sites – if you work with the right supplier there is a huge opportunity to increase business by being prepared to accept clean food and compostable packaging inputs.”  

IVC sites need to ensure the packaging is certified to the EU standard EN 13432. IVCs can take food waste, too, but open windrow sites can’t under animal byproduct regulations. Previously this created a headache for compostable packaging such as cups, which would have milk or cream residues, but the new rules pushed through by Vegware mean that these are now allowable on “certified compostable drinks waste”.

The ORG, which has worked with Vegware, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Environment Agency and Scottish Environment Protection Agency on the changes, has published a list of the certifications and products. The ORG explained: “Where only milk and cream fit for human consumption have been in contact with the above material as part of the drink contents … such compostable material types and the milk/cream residue on them will not be regarded as within scope of animal byproducts regulations as category 3 animal by-products.”

Still, it will remain up to the facility whether to accept compostable packaging. Any composter considering composting these types of material for the first time in their facility “should run a trial with the waste supplier and evaluate it before deciding whether to enter into a contract with them”, the ORG advised.

Frankel said that in her experience sites are generally open to processing Vegware products “as we hold compostability certification and take a lot of care to minimise contamination”. However, she admitted that the current recycling regime remains far from fair. Under the current packaging recovery note (PRN) system, for example, mechanical recyclers of materials such as plastics and paper receive income from processing packaging waste, but composters don’t. “It’s illogical,” Frankel said, “since organics recycling is officially on a par with mechanical recycling.”

MPs on the Commons environmental audit committee tend to agree: in their coffee cup report published in January, they called on the government to introduce a “varied compliance fee structure that rewards design for recyclability and the use of recycled and compostable packaging material and raises costs on packaging that is difficult to recycle”.

Anaerobic digestion sites, which are also permitted to take certified compostables, have also benefited from additional subsidies, Frankel noted. Gate fees at anaerobic digestion sites tend to be lower than at IVC sites, but the former will often strip out any packaging and send it to be landfilled or incinerated – this is because it’s almost impossible to tell what’s compostable and what’s not and, even when it is certified compostable materials, in some cases the packaging will either slow the process down or not decompose.

As companies turn their backs on plastic, interest in compostable alternatives is gathering pace. A trebling of the number of sites that can take certain certified compostable materials could be good news, but what we don’t yet know is how many will accept all these cups, lids and stirrers. A change to the PRN system could make all the difference.

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